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Robert Timberg has dedicated much of his life to telling stories — he’s an accomplished journalist and author who spent decades reporting in Washington. But in his newest book, he turns inward to share the very personal story about the events that put him on his path as a journalist: he picked up the trade after suffering horrific injuries as a young Marine in Vietnam. Kojo talks with Timberg about what he learned from his service and how his reinvention as a journalist helped to heal the mental and physical wounds he suffered.
- Robert Timberg Author, "Blue-Eyed Boy: A Memoir" (Penguin Press, 2014)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIRobert Timberg is a newsman. During the course of many decades in the business, he covered the stories that shaped so much of who we are as a country today. But it wasn't until recently that he decided to share the story of his place in an event that left deep scars on a generation of Americans and how journalism helped him decide that he did not want to die during the darkest time of his life.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn 1967, Robert Timberg was a young Marine nearing the end of a tour in Vietnam when his vehicle drove over a landmine. He suffered burns so severe that even after dozens of surgeries, his face was severely disfigured. But after a period when he avoided leaving his home and exposing his injuries in public, a period when he even contemplated suicide, he threw himself into one of the most public professions of all, journalism.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIA decision that ultimately led to a celebrated career as a reporter, editor and author and a future more like the one he thought was waiting for him before he met that landmine nearly 50 years ago. Robert Timberg joins us in studio, journalist and author. His most recent book is titled, "Blue-Eyed Boy: A Memoir." He is a former United States Marine who served in Vietnam. Bob Timberg, welcome.
MR. ROBERT TIMBERGThank you, Kojo. Glad to be here.
NNAMDIYou have come a long way since you met that landmine in Vietnam as a young man. You've had children, one of whom we have spoken with regularly on this broadcast for years, Craig Timberg of the Washington Post front page story today, you go, Craig. It almost always seems to us as if journalism is something that is part of Craig's DNA. But it took a life-altering event for journalism to become part of your life. How would you characterize the way this job ultimately defines both you and your family?
TIMBERGWell, it certainly -- if it hadn't been for that landmine, it certainly wouldn't have had sent me in this direction because I probably would have been a Marine lifer.
NNAMDIThat's what I was wondering -- what we're you contemplating, yes.
TIMBERGWell, you know, I was contemplating something and I didn't know what I was -- but, you know, as I gotten near the end of my time in Vietnam, which was a close amount of time I would need to spend in the Marine Corps, I started to think what should I do, what can I do. And the -- the only thing that I ever, ever seem concrete to me was this very, very weird dream I had about standing in front of a big board, which was a Texaco board.
TIMBERGAnd there were all these truck drivers in the audience and I was telling them where to go. And that's the only thing that I ever -- and I think the reason for that is that Texaco sent me my first credit card when I was at the academy. So I didn't know where I was going. I didn't even know if I was getting out. I mean, I -- my order is, in fact, to go home because, as you know, I had 13 days left when I got wounded.
TIMBERGMy orders to go home was sending me to the 5th Marine Division, which was, even then, preparing to go back to Vietnam. So, you know, it was -- it was still very hard to seriously contemplate the future.
NNAMDII was trying to extrapolate from that dream what that -- a spokesperson for Texaco, who knows?
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. Have you or anyone else to you ever struggled -- close to you struggled with physical or mental injury suffered in war? How did you cope? 800-433-8850. Bob Timberg, what compelled you to tell the story now after all that time? And what did Craig have to do with it?
TIMBERGWell, the reason I decided to tell it now, in part, because Craig had been bullying me to do it for some time.
NNAMDICan't see Craig bully, but I guess he bullied you, huh?
TIMBERGYeah, yeah. You need to meet some of Craig's friends, too, and his -- not to mention his brother and sisters. But, you know, why did I do it now? I came to -- there was partially -- it was something -- an event that happened in my bathroom, which is like, it just bad lead-in, right? But I was shaving one day and not thinking, and suddenly, I mean -- I just sort of focused on my face, something which I rarely did.
TIMBERGI just, you know, shaves and got, you know, got out of the bathroom. But that day, I just looked at it and I thought, you know, I've had it, you know, enough already. Let, you know, let's -- the joke's over. It's not funny anymore. And I'm alone in my bathroom saying all of this. And, you know, I'm saying, you know, time to, like, let me go back to what I was when I was 26 when I got wounded. And, you know, but I mean, obviously I realized that was nuts, right?
TIMBERGBut, you know, it got me started to think, you know, I had always rejected the idea of telling my story if only because I was -- it didn't seem to me that it would offer anybody anything other than a sad tale. But the more I thought about it and particularly after this strange occurrence in the bathroom, you know, I realize that, you know, we've -- the era -- the period we're living in now is once, you know, was sort of if not come full circle, we've come back to a very familiar place, where deep division are, you know, are affecting our country as we face wars that we perhaps got into a little carelessly.
TIMBERGAnd it -- and I just started to think, well, you know, maybe I have something to say here. And what I wanted to say and what I think finally, you know, got me to do it was that I wanted to -- I wanted to show that wars take a very, very deep personal -- deep, personal effect. You know, it is their -- they extract great loss. But more than that, more than that, you know, this book, which recounts the number of surgeries and things like that. But this isn't a book about medicine, this is a book about recovery and reclamation. Meaning, in fact, reclaiming my life.
NNAMDII'm glad you said recovery and reclamation because you make it clear in the prologue of the book that you think the whole notion of reclaiming your future, recovery and reclamation has a B.S. self-help kind of sound, but that your most significant achievement in your life was the fact that you decided not to let your future die when your injuries threaten to take it away from you. What do you mean by that?
TIMBERGWell, that's it. I mean, I was at a, you know, I was -- I was in very bad shape and I was, you know, the Marine Corps, in their wisdom, ultimately judged me 100 percent, permanently disabled. And, you know, and I was, you know, it seemed -- that seemed right to me. But, you know, my doctor -- I have a very, very good doctor and a surgeon. And he was -- he operated on me God knows how many times at the San Diego Naval Hospital.
NNAMDIAnd you know how many times.
TIMBERGYeah, it was -- yeah, he does too now. You know? It was over 35 times, around 35 times. And I don't know, I just -- I'm not even sure where I was going on that.
NNAMDIBut you were -- you were depressed obviously as a result of this.
NNAMDIAnd, frankly, when I looked at some of the images in this book of what happened to you, anybody who looked at these images could understand how you were depressed, how you might not want to come outdoors and even how you might contemplate suicide and say, how the heck did he get over that.
TIMBERGYou know, it was -- it was just -- you know, there's a lot to be said for momentum. And, you know, my doctor said, you know, Bob, you know, I can't do anymore surgery for a while. I want to discharge you from the hospital. Well, the hospital had become my haven. And the idea of suddenly going home and facing people on the street, you know, scared the hell out of me.
TIMBERGAnd -- and I was not, you know, very graceful in terms of meeting people on the street who looked (word?) at me. I mean, I would holler at them and, you know, it was -- it was not a pleasant scene.
NNAMDIWell, let's tell people how that scene came about in the first place. You're tour in Vietnam was scheduled to end in just a matter of days. You went out in a vehicle not to fight but to distribute combat pay to your fellow Marines. What happened in the moments that followed? And it wasn't even supposed to be your who was delivering combat pay on that specific day.
TIMBERGYou know, you've read this very closely, Kojo. Yeah, it wasn't -- you know, Marines get paid. I mean, if they can possibly get paid -- if they can possibly get paid and they're not in the middle of a mortar attack, you figure out a way to pay them. And I -- this was not my -- we are four, five officers in the company and we took turns going on being pay officer. And I was not due to be pay officer that day. I was due to go to Okinawa and look at...
NNAMDIDo some shopping.
TIMBERG...and to go shopping, looking for stereo equipment and maybe some pearls for my wife. And -- but something happened that keep -- so that the guy who's supposed to be pay officer couldn't do it. It was what we call war. The war was interceded and there was nothing I could say. You know, it was -- so I went. I was, you know, I took my little canvas bag of money, which was, you know, military payment certificates, which were bills that had -- well, I always thought -- there was a woman on the bill.
TIMBERGAnd, you know, in place of, you know, Old Hickory or George Washington, she looked to me like Jackie Kennedy. And -- but at any rate, I took that -- I was taking that out to a platoon position. We were riding on -- I was riding on a tracked vehicle called an AmTrac, an amphibious tractor, which was similar to what the Army calls an armored personnel carrier.
TIMBERGAnd we hit a land mine and it ignited all the fuel in the -- in this vehicle. And, you know, the next thing I know I'm sort of engulfed in flames. And then I'm cold because -- momentarily, because I'm knocked off and land. And, you know, there I am. It was -- I was -- it was like a cone of fire.
NNAMDIAt what point in the aftermath did you recognize or feel that your spirits were taking a turn for the worse? You point out that it's one thing to promise to fight like hell when you've got supporters pouring in encouragement, camaraderie. It's another when you're left alone and the attention has faded.
TIMBERGYeah, that's really true. And, you know, when it -- when that moment came -- I don't know. It was building toward that. I mean I had seen my face in the immediate aftermath, within a couple of weeks. And it looked, you know, it looked like a piece of raw meat, but all my features were intact. My nose looked my nose. My mouth looked like my mouth. And I thought, "Well, you know, this is -- bad as it looks right now, you know, I'm going to be okay," because the doctors kept telling me I was going to be okay.
TIMBERGI just figured as soon as the skin grows back it'll be all right. What I didn't know was that the skin was never going to grow back. I had had third-degree burns and that means, you know, the skin is gone and it stays gone. And, you know, what you need skin grafts. So that, but, you know, leading up to that, you know, I was in that kind of, you know, I'm okay.
TIMBERGI'm going to, you know, I'm going to -- I don't know if I was thinking about getting back in the battle, but I sure and hell wasn't thinking about anything more serious than a few year -- a few months in the hospital. But people kept coming up to me and saying things like, well, you know, you should be happy that this happened to you know because, you know, they're doing amazing things in reconstructive surgery.
TIMBERGAnd this happened more than once. And I was thinking, hold it, hold it. Reconstructive surgery? I mean, I'm not a Nazi war criminal. I'm not, you know, I'm not a mobster. I don't need to go to ground in Paraguay or someplace like that. But what I didn't realize was that my face was -- even with the grafts -- was scarring and becoming tighter and tighter. And until, really, I looked like a, I mean, I looked like a monster.
NNAMDIAnd when you were alone that makes you decide…
TIMBERGYeah, I think if you ask -- you asked about that one moment. I'm not sure there was one moment. But there was a time once -- something that happened that really just, you know, seemed to -- just seemed to put it all in perspective. Unfortunately, a horrible perspective.
NNAMDIWe're going to get away from that, after we come back from this short break, and talk about what it was that -- in the middle of all of that -- made Bob Timberg come to a decision that he was going to enter journalism. If you have questions or comments call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIOn a broader issue, how do you think the challenges facing America's newest veterans compare to those who served in the past? What do you think they can learn from other generations who served? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDI…own story. His most recent book is titled "Blue-Eyed Boy: A Memoir." He's a former United States Marine who served in Vietnam. If you have questions or comments for Bob Timberg give us a call at 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. Bob, at what point did you decide that you not only needed to find something to do, a new way to define yourself, but that you were going to do it in public view? Journalism is a big leap from not wanting to leave home.
TIMBERGRight. I -- when my doctor said he was going to discharge me from the hospital, and I had to, you know, no surgery for a couple of years. My this body had already done had to heal. You know, I was lost. I had no idea what to do, but I knew, probably, I needed to go to graduate school. So my wife and I, we sort of looked at all these different things, you know, history, sociology, urbanology.
TIMBERGAnd, you know, none really hit. And she said -- at one point she said, "What about journalism?" And I said, you know, "Janie, Janie, let's be serious here. Okay. I mean, you know what it's like when I go outside. I'm not going, you know, I'm not going to go running outside with my -- with a pen and a little notebook and suddenly say to people, 'Hi, I'm Bob Timberg. I work for the blankety-blank.'
TIMBERG"You know, they would run. Plus -- or it would be so incredibly painful. Let's just forget it. Okay?" She said, "Okay." Well, we go through this -- we're still going through this. We've got to come up with something. And finally she says, "Well, maybe you should -- ought to think about journalism again." And I started doing my number. "Look, Jane, just because I wrote you good love letters doesn't mean I'll be a journalist."
TIMBERGI had never had a word in print in my life. But she said, "Listen," you know, "all those things we looked that you were interested in that you didn't want to do, decided against, you can write about all those things as a journalist." And I don't know if that suddenly that made sense or I just needed an answer to what I was going to do. But that -- I said, "Okay. Let's give it a try." And, I mean, I still think of it as, you know, throwing a dart and it landing on journalism, but…
NNAMDIBut, you know, I do tell young people all the time that if you're interested in journalism you need to have two things. One, a curiosity about all things. And two, the ability to write. That's basically what it takes. And that's what you had. What stories did you find yourself gravitating toward when you were learning your craft? Where did you start to feel, oh, I know how to communicate what's going on here?
TIMBERGYou know, Kojo, I think I learned it right at the start. And it was -- I was sitting in the news room and a city editor says, "Hey, there's this woman jumped off the Eastport Bridge, Timberg, go." And I went. And I didn't know where -- I was -- even knew where I was going, but, you know, I went down there and, you know, and I covered the story. And I covered it well.
TIMBERGAnd, you know, there were more stories. And, you know, at certain point, I -- this began to feel natural. You know, it just, you know, was it DNA? I don't know. I don't know what it was, but, I mean, I wasn't thinking that I was the world's greatest reporter at that point.
NNAMDIA Post review said you took to journalism like a Marine to mud.
TIMBERGYeah, right. That was -- yeah, right. And I did. I did. It was…
NNAMDIIt just happened to be the perfect fit for you.
TIMBERGYeah, and, you know, it's happened, you know, for my -- a couple of my kids, too. You know, so…
NNAMDISo that's clear. What do you see -- talking about your generation, you have written at length books about Jim Webb and Oliver North and John McCain. What do you see when you observe the generation of Americans who have served and returned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Do you see anything qualitatively or quantitatively different from the experiences of you and your colleagues in Vietnam?
TIMBERGWell, I think there is a difference in the way they are welcomed home.
TIMBERGIn that they are welcomed home. They are not -- as some were, spit -- some of Vietnam veterans came home and they were spit on. And they were -- it was really unpleasant. And it never happened to me, but I know people it happened to. And it's been widely established that that happened. But what I'd like to think about with regard to the people coming home now is what I can do to be of some value is I think in my book, going through all the difficulties and agony and confusion, I, you know, I think there's a lot of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan now who are in the same boat I was in.
TIMBERGAnd I think it's -- I'd like to think that my story will show them that with a little luck and with maybe some love of some good people and some grit they can come through this. They can put their life back together. They can find something that works for them and, you know, it's better than feeling sorry for yourself. I mean I spent a period of time where I, you know, wallowed in self-pity.
TIMBERGAnd did some serious drinking. And, but, you know, I got over that. And I did it because I found something that I love, which was journalism. And, you know, you need something like that. But if you find something like that you can do damn near anything.
NNAMDII mentioned that you had written about Oliver North, Jim Webb, John McCain. Close studies of all of those individuals, as a part of your journalistic experience. How did the experience of -- consider your own time in Vietnam and reflecting on the fact that you literally opened up your footlocker for the very first time when you were getting ready to write about it. How does that compare to the time you spent reporting on what men like them went through?
TIMBERGWell, you know, one of the -- when I wrote "The Nightingale Song," which was my first book, and it was the one that really was centered on Iran-Contra Affair. And that -- I had been covering the White House for the Baltimore Sun when that all broke. I had a sense, you know, when suddenly there's North and Poindexter and McFarlane are fingered as the culprits. And, you know, I said, "Well, how did this happen?" I mean these guys were all Naval Academy graduates.
TIMBERGLike me. Two of them were combat Marines, like me. And, you know, this is -- this, you know, I know some of this -- some jerks that went to the Naval Academy. And I know there were some jerks in the Marine Corps. But this doesn't feel right. And I began to wonder, why. And then I noticed how much hostility was being directed at them. And, you know, I -- if they had been as guilty as, you know, it seemed at the time, some hostility was probably warranted. But this was palpable hatred.
TIMBERGAnd I just couldn't -- I couldn't understand it. Why -- oh, no, it was coming from -- not just members of Congress. It was coming from the press. It was coming from everybody. And I just -- it just confused me. And then I started to smell something. And I think I called it the disinfectant odor of hospitals. And I started thinking about what North, McFarlane and Poindexter had done during Vietnam and what the vast majority of their critics had done, which was not the same thing.
NNAMDIAnd hence, the source of the vitriol. Why did you take so long to open up your footlocker?
TIMBERGI was, you know, I didn't know what was in it, but I thought I knew that it was, and letters from Janie that she had written to me when I was in Vietnam. And by then we had split. I mean this was, believe me, my fault completely. This is not just being a nice guy. It was really my fault. And I just was afraid to, you know, see what was in there, even though I knew what was in there. And I finally -- when I came to -- actually to the end practically of this -- writing this book, I did finally open it. And it was what I thought it was.
NNAMDIDidn't want to be reminded once again that you were the bad guy. When you look back on all of it, do you feel like the life you ultimately carved out for yourself, your career, your family, your children, is one that in any way resembles what that young Marine who left for Vietnam might have wanted in his future?
TIMBERGYou know that's a fascinating concept, Kojo. And I think at this point, after everything that's happened, and, you know, there's been some good things, including four terrific kids. I think that, you know, the path I was on before I got wounded, you know, was gone. But the path I subsequently found myself on I think is not so bad. And I think, in fact, it's a phrase that my son Craig came up with. I think it's authentically my own.
NNAMDINot so bad as a significant understatement for what you have accomplished in the field of journalism. But there is still what you might yet accomplish. Any considerations for what's next for Bob Timberg?
TIMBERGWell, I guess I've got to ask Craig, to see what he's got up his sleeve.
NNAMDIAsk what he's going to bully you into this time.
TIMBERGYeah, yeah. I feel fallow at the moment. I just -- but I'm still in that sort of post-finishing a book…
NNAMDIHow long did it take you to write this book?
TIMBERGThis was in -- this one only took me five years.
TIMBERG"The Nightingale Song" took me eight years.
NNAMDIIt took you…
TIMBERGSo I don't knock these things out.
NNAMDIIt took you five years, but it was probably 40 years in the making, so to speak.
TIMBERGYeah, yeah, I guess that's true.
NNAMDIBecause we're talking about an event that occurred in 1967. Robert Timberg is a journalist and author. His most recent book is titled, "Blue-Eyed Boy: A Memoir." He's a former United States Marine who served in Vietnam. Bob Timberg, thank you for gracing our studio.
TIMBERGKojo, it's really been terrific. I've heard my son Craig on with you. And, you know, I said, "Wow, he's really good. But I'll never get on there."
NNAMDIWell, we wanted you on there and you finally made it. So thanks for joining us.
TIMBERGWell, thank you.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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